Microsoft Researcher Translates Defense Intelligence to Business Intelligence
On June 7, 2010, Christopher White attended a kickoff meeting in suburban Washington D.C. for a project to rapidly develop and deploy big data analytics and visualization tools to aid the war effort in Afghanistan.
“In Chris’s mind, he was going to come to D.C. for two weeks during the summer, work on this program he literally didn’t know anything about, and that’s it,” says Randy Garrett, who was the program manager for Project Nexus 7 at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way.”
White, an expert in training computers to extract information from troves of digitally processed information, had just finished his first year as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. His advisor was a DARPA contractor, which gave White a sought-after opportunity to transfer computer science research into real-world applications. The process just happened much quicker than he anticipated.
A mere three months after the kickoff meeting, White was on a plane to Afghanistan to brief the top U.S. military commander along with the general’s senior staff and one of the most senior intelligence officers in the world on the tools he was developing.
“He was able to show things about Afghanistan that no one had ever seen before,” says Garrett, who is now senior vice president of technology at IronNet Cybersecurity.
Connecting past to present
White is hesitant to discuss his time in Afghanistan. Much of it remains classified, he says, and is only tangentially related to the research he is doing now on Microsoft’s business intelligence platform, Power BI.
But nudged, he leans back from a laptop running a demonstration of Power BI’s new brand and campaign management solution template for Twitter released Monday, and, reluctantly, agrees to provide a few details that connect his past to the present.
“The challenge of the work in Afghanistan was like the big data problem in general – there are a lot of data coming in from different places: from the air, from people wearing sensors, from vehicles, from the news. And the challenge was making that data useful to the warfighter in context,” says White, now a principal researcher within Microsoft’s research organization.
Those contexts range from an Army general wanting to understand how the war is impacting countrywide economic development to whether a soldier on patrol is likely to encounter a roadside bomb in a specific quadrant of a city.
While the contexts vary across space and time, the data used to understand them are similar, White says. He and his collaborators built tools to exploit the myriad flows of data in ways that provide decision makers a sense of what is going on – from their point of view.
White is now helping teams do the same for business intelligence through Power BI. Whether an executive is projecting quarterly earnings or a store manager wants to know how yesterday’s news will effect foot traffic today, they can use similar tools to assess data and make decisions.
“Those tools include interfaces to data, artificial intelligence services that transform data, and infrastructures that can serve data,” White says.
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